Obama on climate change and the North

Allow me to distract you for a minute from the scintillating rhetoric and compelling visions of the Canadian election. 

Allow me to distract you for a minute from the scintillating rhetoric and compelling visions of the Canadian election. The most powerful man in the world just visited Alaska and laid out what he thinks about one of the planet’s biggest issues: climate change.

President Obama spoke Monday in Anchorage at the State Department’s GLACIER conference, which was attended by ministers and high muckety-mucks from the Arctic nations plus countries like China and Korea that feel they have national interests at stake in the Arctic.

The president has been trying to take a middle road on Alaska, climate change and the oil industry throughout his presidency. In July, his administration green-lighted two oil exploration wells in the Chukchi Sea about 100 kilometres offshore. This was deeply disappointing to the left wing of the Democratic Party. It prompted fellow Democrat Hillary Clinton, running for the Democratic presidential nomination, to tweet that “the Arctic is a unique treasure” and “it’s not worth the risk of drilling.”

However, Obama has also angered the drill-baby-drill side of the political spectrum. Earlier this year he proposed new rules that would effectively ban drilling in 22 million acres of onshore and offshore zones in Alaska, including areas in the Beaufort Sea and Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. These moves outraged Alaskan politicians. Senator Lisa Murkowski called it a “stunning attack on our sovereignty.”

In Anchorage on Monday, Obama seemed to be thinking less about political balance and more about his legacy. The president is always a compelling speaker, and this time he used his skills to convince the audience of international leaders that “climate change is no longer some far-off problem” and that now is the time to take decisive action.

His argument boiled down to four points.

First, climate change is real and that “human activity is disrupting the climate, in many ways faster than we thought.” He described the science as “stark.”

Second, the effects will be big and expensive. Using Alaska as an example, he pointed out that Alaska has warmed about twice as much as the rest of the country over the last 60 years. Huge forest fires are increasingly common in Alaska, with an area the size of Massachusetts going up in smoke this summer alone. Fixing roads, homes and pipelines affected by thawing permafrost could cost billions. Rising sea levels could force entire Alaskan communities to move.

He asked us to think about the future, with some climate models suggesting temperatures in Alaska could be 6-12 degrees (Fahrenheit) higher by the end of the century. If you roll such huge impacts across the world, you get droughts, famines, mass human migrations and other apocalyptic scenarios. He said that climate change was a “trend that affects all trends – economic trends, security trends.”

Referring to some of his political opponents, he added that “any leader who does not take this issue seriously or treats it like a joke – is not fit to lead.”

His third point was optimistic, citing the power of human ingenuity. “This is a solvable problem if we start now.”

He hammered his fourth point home many times. We are quite simply moving too slowly. Government and private individuals are changing their fossil-fuel ways. The U.S. economy has grown 60 per cent in the last 20 years, but its carbon emissions are about the same. But this is not fast enough given the scale and peril of climate change.

Obama is a convincing orator. But one can ask good questions about why, if the problem is this seriously, he spent the first six and half years of his presidency boosting U.S. energy production, including that Arctic offshore drilling he recently approved.

Despite all that, he recently significantly tightened CO2 rules for coal-fired power stations. And don’t forget his landmark climate-change deal with China last year. The U.S. committed to cut emissions from 2005 levels by 26-28 per cent by 2025, and the Chinese also made major new commitments. The European Union and Indian government representatives in the audience know that he is setting the stage to press for a big deal by the big emitters at the Paris climate conference this December.

“This year, in Paris,” said the president, “has to be the year that the world finally reaches an agreement to protect the one planet that we’ve got while we still can.”

If Obama can make that happen, it will be a very big deal. Including for certain oil-guzzling northern countries whose federal governments seem to enjoy hiding their own inaction behind the dithering of the international community.

Keith Halliday is a Yukon economist and author of the MacBride Museum’s Aurore of the Yukon series of historical children’s adventure novels. He won this year’s Ma Murray award for best columnist. You can follow him on Channel 9’s “Yukonomist” show or Twitter @hallidaykeith